Your argument is invalid!
December 6, 2012 8:43 AM   Subscribe

Is there a name for this argument?

Is there a name for this? A friend posted a question asking, basically, if we're going to have the rich pay their fair share, what is a fair share?

It seems to me that there is a name for this kind of "debate", wherein everyone knows there is no one right answer, yet the questioner gets to feel (morally? intellectually?) superior for having asked it. Or "proves" their point (that the current rate is just fine) by showing that no one can prove there is a different, correct answer.

I hate this kind of thing, and I want to call him out on it (don't worry, we're very old friends who like to debate with one another). But what do I call it? "Dude, you're being ..... ?" Specious seems close, but not quite right.
posted by wwartorff to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Seems like an example of the perfect solution fallacy. "Your proposal does not perfectly address all possible aspects of the problem, therefore I reject the idea out of hand."

Alternatively it could be a kind of argument from ignorance. "Well, I haven't heard a universally acceptable definition of fair share, therefore there isn't one and so your proposal is wrong."
posted by jedicus at 8:50 AM on December 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

I've heard that called "The perfect is the enemy of the good".
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:54 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't know if it's important to you to find a specific, named logical fallacy here, but if he's asking a question without any real desire for an answer then he is just being disingenuous or arguing in bad faith.

If he's using the rhetorical device of a question in order to express his view that fairness is too contested a concept to use as the basis for policy, then I don't see that he's doing anything wrong, and the burden falls to you to show why it isn't, or to find an alternative.
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:57 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

It is exactly what jedicus says, and in addition it is simply turning the question around. So, the question has seamlessly transitioned from "should the rich pay their fair share" - a simple question to answer and one which, the hypothetical respondent can agree to with ease (because it is undefined) - to "what is a fair share," which the hypothetical questioner must either answer or define.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:58 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't see the problem with that question, there may be no single right answer but there can be several good ones and good discussion can be had around it. If that question was never asked how do you expect things like fairer tax rates to be decided in the real world?

Of course he could just be being a dick, wait until you see his reaction to the answers and then call him on it if he does what you expect.
posted by purplemonkeydishwasher at 9:31 AM on December 6, 2012

If the part of the argument you're objecting to is "There's no objective right answer, therefore the way it's always been done is best," I'd say that's a type of appeal to tradition.

I'm not clear whether that's exactly what you're describing, though. An alternate reading is that you're objecting to the inference, "more than one answer is equally right, therefore all answers are equally right." Which is also a fallacy, although I don't know of a specific name for it.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:31 AM on December 6, 2012

Response by poster: His reply to various comments, none of which actually state what a "fair" rate, is, "Answer the question!", essentially. So he's taking the "prove that the status quo is wrong" kind of position, to my view.

No, there's nothing wrong with the question. It's just a matter of the juvenile use of it to prove himself "right".
posted by wwartorff at 9:37 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

What does he mean by "the rich?" It's just too vague to be an argument, and frankly, "Answer the question!" is just immature browbeating. Disengage.
posted by rhizome at 9:39 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

"The rich" and "fair share" are too vague to be an argument...but, this isn't a de novo argument from his side. He's presumably responding to someone—it's not clear who—who claims that the rich should pay their fair share. (If, in fact, no one has made that argument, it can be called out as a straw man, but I've seen claims like that often enough that this is unlikely.)

The question then arises, who is claiming that the rich should pay their fair share? That is the person he's responding to, and it's up to them to clarify their claim. If he's talking to you specifically, but you haven't (and don't intend to) claim that "the rich" should pay their "fair share," then it's sufficient to point out that you have never (and do not intend to) make that claim.

If you did claim that "the rich" should pay their "fair share," and that is what he's responding to, (or if you decide that is a claim you want to defend), it's perfectly valid for him to ask you to define those terms—but that doesn't mean he's won the debate, it just means that you get to pick what "the rich" and "fair share" mean to you, and then the debate proceeds with those definitions. If he points out that other people don't agree with your definition of "rich" and "fair share," then amend your claim to "people making above $X in income should pay Y% in taxes," or whatever you chose, and drop the problematically vague "rich" and "fair share" terms.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:00 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

The way he's phrased the question arouses suspicion from the get-go: "IF we're going to make the rich pay their fair share...." to him, it sounds like even the basic concept of anyone paying their fair share might not be acceptable.

I bet even if you tell him that Warren Buffett recommends the rich pay at least a 30% marginal tax rate on income over $1 million he still won't accept that as an answer. People like this aren't looking for a real, logical debate.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:04 AM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Actually my very bright (and contrarian) cousin often asks "relative to what?" and "compared to what?", which sounds similar to what your friend is doing, and I think it's actually a good question in terms of reminding people to think carefully about the assumptions they are making. So I don't think your friend necessarily means it in the way you have described.
posted by Dansaman at 10:19 AM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would call his position facile. It's easy to ask the question, but not easy to answer it, and asking the question doesn't equal engaging in the discussion (and he knows it).
posted by rosa at 10:31 AM on December 6, 2012

Seems like he's just changing the subject, don't know if there's a fancy name for that. It's like when Socrates insisted on defining terms at the beginning of the argument, it's a pain in the ass, but he was often right to do so.

Further, I wouldn't say it's necessarily a fallacy here. He is basically agreeing with your initial proposition or assumption that everyone, rich or otherwise (you may not agree with all categories of "otherwise" though), should pay their fair share.

Thus, the debate is properly centered upon what is a fair share, and not whether anyone should have to pay it since that latter point is assumed as true by the argument's participants.
posted by resurrexit at 10:43 AM on December 6, 2012

I'm not sure the original question is really an argument. It's possible he's positioning to argue in bad faith. But it sounds like you're reluctant to provide a clear answer to his question, which may be a bad faith tactic in itself. Surely, "rich" and "fair share" can be quantified and evaluated?
posted by 2N2222 at 11:46 AM on December 6, 2012

Yes I think that guy is arguing in bad faith and will reject any concrete answer you provide. But the way around that is to not give a concrete answer, but side-step that entirely. Your friend's question is basically about how to define 'fair'.

I'd talk about how the American colonies fought a war about how they felt it was unfair that they had to pay taxes to a government that wouldn't let them have a say in how they were taxed. Then I'd say fair is whatever people can agree on as long as they have a say, even if they don't get what they want after saying what they want. Until everyone can always get what they want this seems like the best system of figuring out what's fair and it's certainly a lot more productive than asking other people to tell me what fair is until I'm convinced.
posted by Green With You at 12:09 PM on December 6, 2012

If the answer is vague, then usually the question is vague. If he asks you a question, then ask a question right back for clarification. If he still demands an answer, tell him that he needs to come up with a clearer question. Just keep picking apart his question until he gets tired. If you finally get a clearer question out him, then it should also be much easier for you to genuinely answer it.

Alternately, if he still demands an answer to his vague question, you can give him an equally vague, yet obvious answer:

Him: "If we're going to have the rich pay their fair share, what is a fair share? Answer the question!"
You: "Fair share is an amount that won't severely impact the day-to-day lives of the rich."
posted by nikkorizz at 1:02 PM on December 6, 2012

He is not putting forth an argument at all. He is asking a question. The answer to his question could be a vague answer:
  • "Fair" means less than what they pay now
  • "Fair" means exactly what they pay now
  • "Fair" means more than what they pay now
But you really can't discuss taxes productively without being specific.
  • Everyone pays a flat tax of 10%
  • Keep everything the same, but tax all income over $1 million at 50%
Perhaps he is being annoying, but there is a point. When someone says, "Let's have the rich pay a fair share!" it's rhetoric, not specific. Be specific, then you can have a real discussion.
posted by sarah_pdx at 1:15 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is called "Begging the Question" because it makes an assumption right off the bat that the rich are not paying their fair share. This assumption becomes the premise of the argument, yet it somehow disappears and is never debated. Whether or not the rich are paying their fair share should be the first argument, backed up with factual support, and only then can you discuss what share they should pay, if any. Note: "Begging the Question" does not mean "Raising the Question".
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:35 PM on December 6, 2012

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